Forums » Pantheon Fan Fiction

Hunting in Ember - Chapter Four

    • 178 posts
    March 17, 2021 11:09 AM PDT

    Chapter Four

     

    In the sheltering roots of some great and ancient tree, they rest and listen. Airisu is leaning against the bark with her eyes closed, catching her breath. Graying hair in intricate braids framing a face white with ash.

    Sinsera looks upon her thinking that she will do whatever her elder needs. Perhaps it is just the devotion of a Warden; perhaps a sense of responsibility to the one who took her in, who made her a Warden when she was but a lost ranger roaming the forest half mad, far from Elven paths.

    “There was no damage,” says Airisu quietly. “The door was just… open.”

    Sinsera’s wrong eye is more painful than usual, and she scratches at it beneath the patch. Airisu opens her eyes and looks over at her.

    “Does it bother you today?”

    “Yes,” answers Sinsera, feeling suddenly self-conscious.

    Airisu shifts to look at her. “I believe,” she says, “that if there was ever a time, it is now.”

    Her heart sinks, and “Now?” she says. When Airisu nods, Sinsera tentatively reaches up behind her head and releases the strap holding the patch against her face.

    Her left eye now freed sees a world in chalk greens and soil-sworn browns, every leaf and blade and flower simmering luminescent blues and yellows leaving trails as they sway played by the wind. A web of living slumber around and through them all tangled together feeling breathing.

    Here, there, a tear ripped from ragged light, fingers claws reaching through and trying to pull the seams, to widen the breach so they can shout their way into this world in shapes of trees and crawling things but twisted beyond familiarity and all dark, dark as if the light and warmth of this world cannot touch them.

    Then a shift as a key turns again and the doors open a crack wider and a tolling in the ground, a great bell sounded again it echoes

    She shuts her eyes and frantically pulls the patch back into place, murmuring without words, trying to ask. Airisu reaches up and helps fasten the strap that holds it on.

    “The bell again,” she gasps.

    “I know,” says Airisu. “What did you see?”

    “It’s easier for them to come through,” she says. “We don’t have much time.”

    Airisu stands and helps her up. “Then we had best hurry.”

    They begin to run again swiftly over root and claw.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Wind plays the leaves as it does day after day, year after year. Nothing is changed, yet everything is changed. Somewhere in those woods, two of his companions might have reached Silvergrass Tower by now.

    Haneval paces the deck again. One becomes accustomed to swift communication, the passing of messages by reliable glasswings, so that when the other Towers go silent, helplessness consumes him. No way to know what is going on outside these walls. No way to know if his people are well.

    Confinement chafes. Would that he could take wing and storm across the world toward whatever threatens them all. He wishes to become a vale hawk and lift his comrades out of danger. To find the heart of shadows and bring light with his blades. To restore the Oldwood to what is was and always has been. And if need be, to hunt their enemies across land and sea until he can cut them down and bring peace.

    A long time he paces across the deck, now and then striking the railing in agitation. Until the tolling of the world bell again, pulling at his soul until he shakes. Now he can wait no longer. There are no glasswings in the sky, no riders in the wood. Danger looms and they are on their own.

    He descends the stairs, past the glasswingcote with its singing flock, down the spiral inside the Tower walls. White stone walls, rough stone steps. Now and then a window to the outside, silver fretwork on the glass, or a doorway leading into a Warden’s cell.

    As he nears the first floor he hears Eyirie’s rattled voice. She stops when she sees him step into the room.

    Suomen looks up. “What happened?”

    “Nothing happened,” says Haneval. “That’s the problem. Are we at war with something? Is Airisu alive? How can we just wait…”

    “We wait because silence from all Towers on the border of Oldwood suggests that something catastrophic has happened. We wait because if we are to confront this foe, we will need strength in numbers.”

    Haneval brings a hand down upon the table. “What numbers? There are no glasswings in the sky. If something has happened, there should be messages, pleas for help. It’s as if we are the only Warden Tower in all of Faerthale.”

    “And what would you have us do, Haneval?”

    “Strength in numbers, you said. We should have all gone together with Airisu.”

    “Those were not her orders. And in any case, someone must remain in Red Leaf in case we do receive a message.”

    “Has it occurred to you, elder, that something might have happened to the glasswings that were sent?”

    “Such as?”

    “Such as whatever happened to Tanen. There is an enemy out there, and we hide within stone walls while every ally goes silent.”

    “Hay Nu vanished as well,” says Eyirie. “If something has happened to the Spriggan…”

    “The Spriggan have magic that we cannot comprehend,” Suomen says. “If Hay Nu felt the need to conceal herself, I would not be surprised if she could do so.”

    Eyirie throws herself into a chair and puts her feet on the table. At least she remembered to remove her boots this time, thinks Haneval.

    “Haneval,” says Suomen. He steps closer and grips the other Elf’s shoulder. “Our people have suffered enough, brother. Centuries of darkness and defeat and grief and longing. It is woven into our very skin, one generation to another, echoing like whatever tolls in the wood. We must hold to each other. Do not allow your youthful Ember exuberance to drive you to running off into danger alone.”

    After a moment, Haneval nods. But the tension does not leave him.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Warleader Azikh crouches close to the ground, arms hanging down between armored legs, half-sick with the scent of this choking forest. The stench and the ugliness of all this green makes him want to climb aboard their ship and sail back across the sea. But the opportunity, the flavor of the hunt. The Dire calls to him, and in its hot breath he feels the urge to cloak himself and his enemies in blood.

    He glances over to where the Elf is bound to a tree with vines painfully tight. The Elf is sleeping again, twitching in some troubled dream. They look to Azikh like any other prey or slave or a day’s amusement.

    The Nine-cursed shaman mutters over the strange rod they took from the Elf’s things. Her fingers caress it almost gently. Now and then a tongue leaps forth and licks the red stone at the end. Perhaps the creature can taste the magic it contains.

    “Warleader.”

    Azikh looks up and sees his lieutenant, Ghanrk. Slowly he rises from his crouch as a predator blooms, languorous before the hunt. He steps over and glares at his most devoted follower.

    Ghanrk continues, “Warleader, we have what we hunted. The warband is restless.”

    “They should be.”

    “What is your plan?”

    “I don’t know, Ghanrk. Should we stay in this Nine-cursed jungle, or sail across the Nine-cursed sea? Why don’t we ask that one.”

    Shaman Tsoqal peers up from her precious artifact and narrows her eyes. “Do you crave something, warleader?”

    “I know you’re busy clinging to the illusion of your power, but my band is wondering what is next.”

    “They will learn what is next when I tell them.”

    Azikh lifts the creature by her furred tunic and stares into those mottled eyes. “Whatever patience I possessed in this life found release in the endless deep. We have done your bidding, Shaman. Now we stay, or go.”

    Unfazed by Azizh’s spittle or her state of hanging by the front of her tunic, she shoves the artifact in his face. “Do you know what this is, warleader?”

    “I fear that you are about to tell me.”

    “Your fear is correct.”

    She mocks me once more in front of my people and I will eat those eyes out of her head.

    “This,” continues Tsoqal, “is a key. A very, very old key. It lay dormant in our lands for ages of the world because the door…” she smiles, “is here.”

    “Are you about to tell me what it opens?”

    “Already… opening.”

    The shaman laughs, and he drops her to the ground. He turns and walks over to the captive Elf, beats it until it awakens. The Elf looks up with an expression of fear.

    In all eyes does fear look the same. And every time, I feel a wash of joy that I despise.

    “Do you know the Skar tongue?”

    The Elf licks its lips and nods. “Some.”

    “Name.”

    “Erenoth.”

    Azikh points toward the wretched shaman cradling her toy. “What does that key open?”

    Erenoth glances toward the artifact. “There are worlds brought to this world.”

    Azikh growls. “I know we came from somewhere else. I am not a child.”

    “There are other worlds… close. Long ago, the Mad opened a door to one of them. Here. Things… came through. Terrible things.”

    “Why was the key in our lands?”

    “Someone sent it far away.”

    Azikh feels the laughter bubbling close to his throat, an unexpected mirth. “And you… you brought it back here… where it would open the door again.”

    “Didn’t know,” rasps the Elf. “Just wanted to study it.”

    Azikh laughs now, feeling it scrape against his throat. The sound appears to frighten the Elf. “‘The Mad.’ Everyone is mad. Elves, Skar, anyone who suffers the bond of life. Tell me, Elf. What is it that comes through?”

    Erenoth licks its dry lips again. Perhaps we should give it some water. I will decide later.

    “Didn’t understand before,” says the Elf. “Just before you found me… figured out the last.”

    “The last.”

    “Long ago they worshipped the Siluri who dwell in a place called Tashlultuum. The last part…” Erenoth glances once more toward the shaman, “speaks of tearing holes in the world so the Siluri can come.”

    Azikh stands and looks down at the Elf. He feels nothing but contempt for this creature who crossed the world to loot a key without knowing what it would open. He looks over at his warband, who are finishing a meal of the pieces of flesh that remained of two of their number after a Siluri creature finished with them. Killing the creature had been a challenge, like trying to kill illusions from an enchanter of the fish people. Its corpse, revealed at the last, was not something any of them wanted to eat.

    Noticing his regard, they stand and look to him. The follow him because he gave them a purpose when they had none, and now he must be sure they continue to.

    A Skar without purpose is a terrible thing.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    No one speaks. The room is thick with waiting, and each of them glances up now and then at the others.

    “Enough,” says Haneval. “I can wait no longer. I must do something.”

    As if a spell has broken, the others move. Suomen stands and goes to the stores of food and water. “I will go,” he says.

    “What?” Haneval takes a step toward him. “You were the one who—“

    “Yes. And I do not know what is madness, to wait for greater numbers that may never come, or to try…” he turns, frowning, “to try to survive the unknown long enough to do something. But I have an idea.”

    Eyirie’s feet drop to the floor. “You don’t know if they’ll be there.”

    “I believe they are there. Consider this a reckless faith, but I do. I have dealt with the Oa and Ua of Elmyen Grove before. They must listen to me.”

    “If they are hiding for protection,” says Haneval, “then why would they risk revealing themselves just for an Elf whose lifetime is nothing to them?”

    Suomen nods. “A reckless faith, as I said. Yet I must go.”

    “Then I shall—“

    “Stay.”

    When Haneval stares in disbelief, Suomen continues, “Elmyen is the nearest grove, and only Eyirie and I have dealt with the Spriggan there. You tend to keep away from them.”

    Eyirie looks like she is about to say something. Instead she gets up and helps herself to supplies.

    “While we’re gone,” adds Suomen, “see if you can get something useful out of our guest. It’s past time he helped us.”

    Haneval nods, a strange gleam in his eyes. “Yes. It is.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    The hiss of trees in a night wind all around them, and the tall silver spear of Red Leaf Tower shines in a clearing. A stylized red leaf beside the door.

    Airisu seems numb, wrapped in grief for those who died at Silvergrass Tower. Sinsera watches the forest around the clearing for danger, but sees nothing that sparks her fear. Just the clearing, and the Tower, and a nearby tree, small but gnarled with age. The doors are closed. The water pump nearby. She looks up and sees Haneval looking down from the deck above.

    But something feels wrong, and the very air grates against her skin. Nearly silent, a low cicada.

    She stops. Airisu continues on, still lost in thought. Sinsera tries to say something, but can’t form the words. Reaching up, she lifts the patch away from her eye and looks at the small tree standing in the dark near the tower.

    Grasping, moving, black and segmented ending in claws and compound eyes like blood-reddened soot, coalbright in the dark.

    It moves toward Airisu.

    Frozen for an instant, she can only stare at how it moves, twists to bend itself toward the Elf walking head down toward the door.

    Then Sinsera draws her bow and begins to shoot.

    A scream like metal grinding against stone, it slows, but claws still reaching to rend Airisu who is looking at it with horror. Raking across her and she falls.

    Sinsera keeps firing as it twists and moves to her, no up or down just a tangle of thorns and burned twigs and the eyes of a spider, a mantle like a jellyfish of soot. The low humming is louder now, angry.

    Flame arrows from above, Haneval firing straight down toward the creature, and the fire makes it angrier. Turning toward the new threat.

    Sinsera runs, lifts Airisu from the ground, and carries her toward the door while the thing beats its many arms against the grass to put out the fire.

    Key into lock, turn. Push the door open, drop Airisu onto the floor and shove the door back into place fast. Key into lock, turn.

    Silence outside. Sinsera drops to the floor and looks at Airisu, who is bleeding from several wounds.

    “Don’t,” she cries and then “Where are you?

    And the fox appears, Airisu’s silent companion, and tries to heal her.

    “No, no,” says Sinsera, “no no no.”

    And Haneval runs down the steps to the ground floor. “What happened?”

    “Monster outside. I’ve locked the door.”

    He kneels beside their elder and watches the foxlight play around her wounds. Then he looks up. “Silvergrass?”

    “All dead. The door was just open. They were ripped to pieces.”

    He loosens a long breath. “A tree outside. It looked like a tree.”

    “Not to me.”

    Then he frowns, noticing that her patch is pushed up. Sees her left eye for the first time. “What… do you see with that?”

    “Truth.”

    A knock at the door. “Airisu,” says a voice. “Airisu, please open the door. I bring a message.”

    Haneval rises from the floor, but Sinsera grabs at his arm. “Don’t answer it!”

    He looks down. “What are you talking about?”

    “They opened the door. It didn’t break in. They opened the door for it.

    Haneval’s eyes widen. He looks at the door again.

    “Airisu.”

    Silence.

    “Sinsera.”

    “It knows our names,” Sinsera whispers.

    For a long time there is no sound.

    “Maybe it’s gone away,” says Haneval.

    Sinsera shakes her head slowly. “No,” she says. “No.”

    She runs to the stairwell and takes the stairs two at a time. Passes one window. Another.

    Something is looking in through the next window. Sees her as she falls against the steps. Eyes, half a dozen coalbright eyes see her, cicada buzzing low. Claws start feeling the edges of the window, seeking a weakness.

    Sinsera huddles against the wall, frozen.

    Then screams as the creature catches fire again. She turns and sees the stranger, Soril, pointing his wand toward the window and whispering.

    Sinsera jumps up and continues up the steps. In the glasswingcote, she climbs the wooden stairs and sticks her head through the opening, looks around the deck frantically. She reaches around for the hatch, then pulls it closed and locks it.

    She sits on the floor of the glasswingcote for a long time, listening to the songs of the birds and waiting for the thing outside to call her name again.


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at March 21, 2021 2:30 PM PDT